Yoga's Secret Power: Enhancing Cognitive Function in Cancer Patients

Spoiler alert: restorative yoga in particular has some noteworthy benefits for cancer patients!

Yoga's Secret Power: Enhancing Cognitive Function in Cancer Patients

I read this study recently: Effects of Vigorous Versus Restorative Yoga Practice on Objective Cognition Functions in Sedentary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Survivors.

Spoiler alert: restorative yoga in particular has some noteworthy benefits for cancer patients!

I thought it was worth writing about since I see a lot of studies like this go under the radar.

This study looked at two different forms of yoga to see how they affected cancer-related cognitive impairment. As a registered yoga teacher and physician specializing in cancer support, I was very excited to read this study!

But first, what is cancer-related cognitive impairment?

Sometimes referred to as "chemo brain", this is a condition that some cancer patients experience related to their cancer or cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. Up to one-third of patients experience cognitive impairment after completing cancer treatment, a staggering statistic!

It can affect a person's memory, thinking, and concentration, making it harder to focus or remember things. Imagine feeling a bit foggy or mentally slowed down.

This happens because chemotherapy affects the energy-producing units in our cells called mitochondria. Our mitochondria can have a reduced ability to produce energy molecules called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

It's as if the once-efficient powerhouses now operate on reduced power, lowering our energy supply.

Chemotherapy can also trigger inflammation within the body. Inflammatory signals can reach the brain and disrupt its normal functioning. This disruption can lead to cognitive difficulties, akin to a storm unsettling the tranquility of a previously serene environment.

So is there a roadmap to improve this scenario? Yes, with a particular emphasis on restorative yoga.

In this study at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center with breast cancer and ovarian cancer patients, the participants were randomized to a restorative yoga program or a vigorous yoga program.

Think of restorative yoga as a gentle, nurturing embrace for both the body and the mind. It involves postures and movements that prioritize relaxation, deep breathing, and fostering a sense of inner calm. The emphasis here is on creating a peaceful and meditative space, allowing participants to unwind and release stress.

In contrast, a vigorous yoga program could be likened to an invigorating dance between movement and breath. You may have heard of Vinyasa Flow or Power Yoga, these are some examples of "vigorous" yoga practices.

This branch involves more physically demanding postures and sequences, encouraging participants to build strength, flexibility, and endurance. The synchronized flow of breath and movement ignites a dynamic energy, helping participants feel revitalized and connected to their bodies.

Each of these yoga paths, restorative and vigorous, offers its unique set of benefits, and this study aims to unveil how they influence cognitive function for cancer patients.

I think if I were to simplify the results:

For women doing gentle restorative yoga, their overall cognitive function improved from good to even better after 12 and 24 weeks. They also got better at tasks like thinking quickly and solving problems. However, their memory and accumulated knowledge didn't show big changes.

On the other hand, women doing more intense yoga didn't show big improvements in overall thinking skills, problem-solving, or memory. But, their accumulated knowledge improved a bit.  

Comparing the two groups, the gentle yoga women did better with overall cognitive function, quick thinking, and problem-solving tasks.

The intense yoga group did better in accumulated knowledge tasks after 24 weeks. Other differences between the groups weren't very clear.

So what are my big-picture takeaways?

For any cancer patients who haven't tried restorative yoga before, I think this is something worth trying to help fight some of that chemo brain!

In my free time, I've been developing a specialized restorative yoga program for my cancer patients on my YouTube channel. This program is designed to provide you with free, accessible, and effective practices that can help address cognitive challenges and enhance your overall well-being.

And even though this study only recruited breast and ovarian cancer patients, I think anyone with cancer or a history of cancer could benefit.

If you're interested in joining this journey towards improved cognitive function and a better quality of life, I invite you to subscribe or follow to stay updated with the latest content.

Links to the studies included in this blog post:

Chemotherapy: a double-edged sword in cancer treatment - PubMed
Chemotherapy is a well-known and effective treatment for different cancers; unfortunately, it has not been as efficient in the eradication of all cancer cells as been expected. The mechanism of this failure was not fully clarified, yet. Meanwhile, alterations in the physiologic conditions of the tum…
"Some chemotherapy agents can induce systematic inflammation by provoking TLR4 signaling or triggering IL-1B secretion through the inflammasome pathway. NF-kB and MAPK are key signaling pathways of inflammation and could be activated by several chemotherapy drugs."
This review summarizes the current literature on cancer-related cognitive impairment (CRCI) with a focus on prevalence, mechanisms, and possible interventions for CRCI in those who receive adjuvant chemotherapy for non-central nervous system tumors and…
"CRCI is highly prevalent; these problems can be detected in up to 30% of patients prior to chemotherapy; up to 75% of patients report some form of CRCI during treatment, and CRCI is still present in up to 35% of patients many years following completion of treatment."